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Published May 14, 2009, 06:41 PM

Northland Nature: Enjoying the ephemeral perennial trout-lilies

Woodland spring floral displays are quite varied: With a little searching, an observant nature watcher will find at least 10 species, all holding flowers.

By: Larry Weber, Budgeteer News

Anyone wandering into the North Country woods in mid-May will note the thick and rich growth of green plants on the forest floor.

Here, one can see several kinds of small shrubs now opening their new foliage of the season; fern fiddleheads unfold their long green fronds for another year; and an abundance of spring wild flowers are now in bloom.

Woodland spring floral displays are quite varied: With a little searching, an observant nature watcher will find at least 10 species, all holding flowers. The forests will soon become shaded in the growing canopy, and these spring flowers are quick to take advantage of the shrinking sunlight.

Two months from now, it will not even look like they were here. Such short-lived plants are called “ephemerals.”

The flowers of this scene tend to be perennials and I have found the same kinds at the same places for years.

At a time that we often have alien plants amongst us, these vernal flora are native.

Colors are not so varied and, though we see pink-purple-blue spring beauty in wild ginger, purple violets and hepatica, most spring flowers are white and yellow.

White blooms show from bloodroot, wood anemone, wild strawberry and trilliums. Yellows abound in the marsh marigold, bellworts and yellow violets.

Trout-lilies, another rather common plant of the May bouquet, have both white and yellow flowers.

Standing only 3 to 5 inches tall, the plants send up leaves and flowers from the ground. Usually we see single blotched green leaves with no flowers. Growths of these sterile leaves may number in the hundreds at a single site. When we take a closer look, we see a few (normally less than 10 percent) have flowers.

Those that do produce colorful foliage have it develop from plants with two leaves. Petals are either white or yellow — two different species.

We have both kinds in the region, with Jay Cooke State Park being a locale hosting each one, often side by side.

Flowers are bent from a single stalk when open. Petals arch back to be fully in bloom.

Whether white or yellow, what appears to be six petals is really three petals and three sepals that are all the same color.

Many say the name “trout-lily” refers to the patterns on the blotched leaves, but, in all actuality, it has a different connection to fish.

The naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) of the Catskill Mountains of New York is credited with naming these plants. He was an avid angler and he observed that this flower would be in bloom at about the same time as the trout swam upstream in spring to spawn.

And, for us in northern Minnesota, they begin to open flowers near the time of the fishing opener in May.

With no lack of names, these lovely white or yellow flowers are also called “adders tongue,” “dog-tooth violet” and “fawn lily” in different parts of the country.

Whatever label we attach to them, they add another touch of diversity to the forest floor at this wonderful time of spring.

We are fortunate to have both the white and yellow trout-lilies living here.